This afternoon on my walk I passed our local elementary school while the kids were being dismissed for the day. As I approached I could hear the wailing of one tiny little girl, who was sobbing and clunking her feet in big snow boots a few paces behind what appeared to be her mom and dad. She looked like she was maybe three or four years old -- but kids come in all shapes and sizes, so she was probably a kindergartener.
I passed the parents first. I made eye contact and smiled, scanning their faces discreetly to see how they were reacting to the situation. They seemed pretty neutral, even a bit detached.
Next I walked by the little girl; her face bright red, tears streaming down her cheeks, dragging her tiny legs along like each one weighed a ton, begging to be carried but forcing herself to keep moving so she didn't fall too far behind.
I could see her inner conflict written all over her face. She was spent from her long day, but she was terrified that her parents would get too far ahead, so she overruled her body's desperate cries for rest and kept moving out of fear. Every bone in my body wanted to scoop that little cherub up in my arms and comfort her.
But of course, I couldn't! That would have been creepy.
So instead I kept on walking, and spent the rest of the way home wondering why even the kindest people can be so cold and unresponsive to our children at times. Not that these particular folks were truly cold or unresponsive -- I have no way of knowing what was going on in their heads or in the situation, and if I have learned only one thing in life it's that more often than not things are not as they appear. But I always enjoy a good opportunity for contemplation, so I came up with two main reasons.
First, many parents have been misinformed about their children's true motives. We've been brainwashed to shut down our normal compassion. Well-meaning admonishments suggest that our children are just manipulating us, and that we will spoil them if we 'give in.'
Some parenting 'experts' teach that it is not only necessary, but actually constructive to treat children in ways that we would never treat other adults. Gosh, I even see people out on walks who are carrying their dogs sometimes! But we are told that we will spoil our children if we carry them after they are old enough to walk.
I'm not sure what's behind this insidious advice, but I became a parenting consultant in order to help reverse this trend. In my parenting workshops, consultations, and articles, I talk about how all behavior is communication, and children are simply using immature strategies for getting their basic needs met. I help parents teach their children more effective and socially acceptable strategies which foster connection (ie asking instead of grabbing.)
Most of us would never remain friends with an adult who treated us the way we've been told to treat our children. If you called a friend while you were in tears, seeking compassion and reassurance, and she told you she would only listen when you stopped whining and crying, would you call her again?
If your legs grew tired while shopping at the mall and you wanted to sit down for a moment to recharge, would your friend keep walking and threaten that you better keep up with her or you will get lost in the crowd? If she did, would you invite her to the mall again anytime soon?
Imagine asking your husband if he would help you bring the groceries in from the car, and he tells you to be a big girl and do it yourself. How warm and snuggly would you feel toward him after that? Why do we think our kids would feel any differently about this treatment than we would?
So one reason I think parents may shut their hearts down is that we fear that treating our children with basic human compassion will screw them up in some way. So in order to do what is "best for them," we have to overrule our natural compassion and hide behind a cold, detached mask.
I think maybe the other reason that parents sometimes become indifferent to a child's suffering is that it triggers feelings in us that we don't know how to manage. In effect, our child's distress can send us right back into any stored-up leftover distress in ourselves. So we wall off our hearts as a coping mechanism, to make sure that backlog of painful emotion doesn't overwhelm us.
It seems to me that adults and children have the same core needs. We all crave acknowledgement, acceptance, and appreciation. Most of us need to express our emotions so they don't get stored up inside and become toxic. It helps us feel closer to each other when we can express our feelings to a loving listener.
Many of us don't need other people to give us solutions to our problems so much as we need lovingly attentive companionship while we work things out ourselves. I don't know about you, but I always feel better after a cleansing cry, even if the situation that triggered it remains unchanged. Sometimes a good cry IS the solution.
Maybe one way to address this second reason that we lose compassion for our children is through cultivating supportive and nurturing friendships with other parents. We all need somewhere safe to unload our emotions. We need to be able to turn to another adult when we are triggered, one who will not judge us, who loves us, and won't try to fix our feelings or hurry us out of them.
No one can be there for others ALL the time, so we need more than one friend like this. And often, our spouses cannot play this role, because they are physically and emotionally invested in us "keeping it together."
So if we want to be more compassionate parents, we need to create those kind of friendships in our lives. We need havens. Safe listeners. Friends who have no agenda other than keeping us company while the ick comes out. Friends who trust the process of release, and will not think less of us in our uglier moments. Companions who can ride the storm out with us, and know we will feel better afterwards even if nothing has changed.
And if we want to contribute to a more compassionate future, we can BE that kind of friend. We can smile gently at the parent whose child is screaming at the store and silently offer a 'been there' kind of acceptance. We can offer tissues, hugs, and kind murmurs when our friends have emotional breakdowns. Although it may not seem like much, it's actually one of the most powerfully supportive actions we can take.
And we can turn to our friends when we find ourselves closing off to our children, and ask them to be there with us while we express whatever feelings have been activated within us. There's nothing like a good cry to clear the emotional gunk out of our system so we can feel our hearts again.
Oh, and we can also do this for our children! Be a compassionate listener and stay close while they cry to release the gunk that is obscuring their natural happiness and good will. Lately I've been thinking of tears as solvents, because I suspect they actually wash away bad feelings. But I'll write more on that another day ...
For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit http://www.karenalonge.com/